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Russ College alum brings Iron Man innovation to BMW

Tyler Prich | Mar 13, 2017
Frank Pochiro at BMW testing exoskeletons for assembly line workers

Russ College alum brings Iron Man innovation to BMW

Tyler Prich | Mar 13, 2017

An automotive assembly line can demand great physical effort from workers who must lift heavy tools above their heads, and one Russ College graduate has proposed an innovative solution straight out of a comic book: exoskeletons.

“One of my first projects at BMW was to develop alternative options for a hovercraft lift assist designed to raise heavy exhaust systems to the underbody of vehicles,” said BMW senior engineer Frank Pochiro, BSIT ’97. “I would joke with the tool designers that all we really need is an Iron Man suit.”

In 2015, Pochiro and his colleagues were tasked with finding a solution to the physical strain that assembly line workers undergo, leading Pochiro to again propose the use of exoskeletons. Only this time, he wasn’t joking.

“Originally inspired by a TED Talk involving Ekso Bionics, I discovered they had developed a full body-powered exoskeleton for the military,” Pochiro said. “Through further research, we ascertained that backpack-style exoskeletons could provide arm support for above-shoulder work and reduce injuries, fatigue, stresses and strains in the neck, back and shoulders.”

BMW is now the world’s first auto manufacturer to roll out wearable, robotic exoskeletons on the assembly line, providing workers with ergonomic upper-body support. The vests are worn like a backpack and typically provide 30-40 percent strength assistance to workers – and have proven to increase workplace productivity and safety.

In 2016, the company implemented about 50 vests onto the Spartanburg, South Carolina, factory floor, with plans for hundreds more in 2017 that could be used from Germany to China.

Pochiro’s innovation doesn’t stop at exoskeletons – he’s also working on a what they’ve nicknamed “The Cobra Project,” which involves adapting robots to work collaboratively with assembly workers to remove adapters from the bottom of the vehicles. He also spends a lot of his time in Germany, where he’s working to bring together the various IT systems used by BMW engineers worldwide to streamline and improve efficiency.

Pochiro said that the ability to improve the daily experience of BMW associates, while alleviating injuries, is rewarding work. He pointed to his time at the Russ College as pivotal in preparing him for his career.

“The Russ College of Engineering and Technology prepared me well for my career through exceptional learning experiences and opportunities,” Pochiro said. “I joined the Society of Plastics Engineers during my undergrad and found societies and clubs were another great way to specialize in different fields.”

His words of wisdom for future engineers? Don’t be afraid to go international.

“I was fortunate to be assigned a contract in Germany soon after graduating, learning how international and foreign language experience can be directly related to future growth in the business and manufacturing world,” Pochiro said. “If I were to give advice, I’d tell my fellow Bobcats: Be the first one to put your name in the hat for an international assignment. A year or two abroad will pay it forward tenfold.”